Union Budget 2021 Review: Education sector

~ by Trinanjan Chakraborty

Last week, the Union Budget was presented in the Parliament. We will look at the budget trends for some key sectors. The opening piece focuses on the Education sector.

As life moves closer to normalcy in the post Covid world, the one sector which remains most affected is the education sector. Even now, schools, colleges and other education institutions haven’t become fully functional in the country. Globally, as life came to a standstill due to the pandemic, education moved from physical to the virtual space. However, in India, this presented a challenge of its own. For students in large cities, this was still less of a problem. But in small towns, villages, dissemination of online education was and remains a big challenge with low ownership of computers, smartphones, network coverage issues etc. Even in urban, for students from lower socio-economic strata, this posed severe problems. In light of the tremendous disruption of school and college education, this year’s budget is pivotal for the sector.

Budget 2021 allocates Rs. 93,224 crores for the Education sector. Of this, Rs. 54873.66 crores allotment is for school education and Rs. 38,350.65 crore for higher education. The allotment for Fiscal 2022 is Rs. 6088 crores less than the allocation of the previous year. During FY21, out of the allotted amount, Rs. 85, 089 crores were utilized only, the rest remaining unused. With the kind of severe disruption the sector has faced due to the pandemic, the reduction in allocation is somewhat surprising.

The drop in budgetary allocation runs across major schemes and programs. The allocation on Samagra Siksha Abhiyaan – the government’s flagship scheme – is Rs. 31,050 crores, down from Rs. 38,751 crores from last fiscal. Allocation on National Education Mission which includes teacher education as well is Rs. 31300.16 crores – a significant drop from Rs. 38860.50 crores allotted in the previous fiscal. However, in what is probably the most worrying trend, the allotment on mid-day meals is also down – from Rs. 12900 crores in the RE for FY 2021 to Rs. 11500 crores for the coming fiscal. Covid-19 has not only adversely impacted education, for students of lower socio-economic strata, it has also hit their nutrition needs. With schools remaining closed for prolonged, children especially in rural, are missing out on what was their only source of a nutritious meal. Against this backdrop, the reduction in allocation for mid-day meals is worrying.

Apart from drop in the budgetary allocation, the other major missing point as far as the education sector is concerned is lack of a clear and firm blueprint on re-opening of schools. Right now, there is little clarity on this subject. Some states like Andhra Pradesh had re-opened schools last year only to witness a sharp rise in infections among students and were forced to close down again. Many states like West Bengal have kept academic institutions closed well into the new year. Against this backdrop, it was expected that the Budget would announce concrete steps & guidelines regarding reopening of schools. It is an open secret that in many state run schools, the hygiene measures are well below the required standards even in a pre-Covid world. But post the pandemic and mass vaccination still long away, the hygiene and cleaning measures need to be a critical and continuous feature in all academic institutions. The budget though remained silent on this very important aspect.

The Union Budget 2021 was a hugely challenging one. The pandemic and the forced lockdown because of it blew a hole into the economy. Quite unsurprisingly, the Health sector was a major focus for the government and rightly so. It is also expected that with the heavy focus on Health, certain compromises had to be made on other sectors. But Education is one of the most vital sectors of any nation and with the kind of hit the sector has taken due to the pandemic, it should have had an equal focus. From that respect, Budget 2021 remains somewhat underwhelming.

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